“Brainiac” and the Tesla-ification of a spirited driving vehicle

I’ve been obsessed with the Scion FR-S/Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ for years now. What interests me about it is that Toyota and Subaru committed to the purebred concept of the roadster, with front engine, rear wheel drive, and playful handling as the most important aspects of the design. This design philosophy also translated into a bare-bones, functional interior with minimal creature comforts and simple hard controls for climate and media. 

The bare-bones interior of the 86/FR-S/BRZ designed with spirited driving in mind.

Another positive for car enthusiasts is that the vehicle lends itself well to modifications- Toyota and Subaru knew their target audience would be car enthusiasts who’d love to tinker with their vehicle, and hence made it easy for them to access the mechanical and electronic parts of the vehicle. And tinker they did- a simple web search will yield hundreds of different possibilities, from headlights/tail lights to exhaust to wheels, even swapping out the engine!

Now, I spend a lot of time watching videos and browsing through forums for this vehicle- think of it as window shopping. As a result of this habit, one fine day the Youtube algorithm recommended to me a video about a new(ish) touchscreen head unit for the Subaru BRZ aptly named “Brainiac”. It is a touchscreen interface that combines the media and climate controls into one sleek-looking touchscreen interface. 

Brainiac uses a touchscreen interface sourced from tablet computers, and also comes with bits of fitment and interior panels in place of the components it replaces.

The “Brainiac” piqued my interest because I do a lot of research on automotive infotainment systems at work, and in our practice meetings we tend to discuss how perceptions of a vehicle’s “coolness” or “futuristic quality” end up being translated into “less buttons and knobs”; more specifically into “like the Tesla with its big touchscreen that has everything on it” 

As Human Factors Researchers we know that the trade-off of this “Tesla-ification” is that you lose the immediacy of access that buttons and knobs provide. To put it simply, hard controls like buttons and knobs may appear to be “old school” and “clunky”, but you don’t have to look at them to operate them, which lets you pay attention to the road. 

Paying attention to the road is an important aspect of the design of the Toyota 86- it is a roadster purpose-built to enjoy spirited driving. Cutting through canyons and navigating hairpin turns. Knowing how much grip you have through the tires because of how low you are to the ground. Turning the steering wheel and knowing that the vehicle will go exactly where you’ve pointed it. 

But that’s just my personal opinion- I wanted to know what the community felt about it. My thoughts about this are perfectly echoed by Reddit user TurbochargedSquirrel.

On the other hand, other forums seemed open to the idea of a touchscreen interface just to add a bit more flair to their vehicles.

This split is something we’ve seen in our research for a while now- people who prefer simplicity and want to focus on the driving primarily, and those who want all the bells and whistles that modern technology has to offer. My reservations with replacing traditional controls with touchscreen interfaces remain, but to the credit of the developers of Brainiac, they have added touch gestures to their interface to allow the user to perform actions without having to look. The issue I have with that, however, is that touch gestures usually have to be remembered, and do not have a visual component to them that the user can “follow along” or “trace”. 

So what’s the best of both worlds? What’s a way to maintain the spirit of driving intact while also moving away from old fashioned controls? Designer Kasper Kessels’ concept might just be a bridge between those two worlds. With help from the design department at Renault, he created a concept for incorporating touch gestures into a vehicle’s infotainment that aims to solve the issue of the visual component that touch gestures tend to lack. 

In the end, I’d like to pose the question to you- what do you think about the move towards “Tesla-ifying” in-vehicle infotainment systems? Are we attempting to fix something that’s not broken? Is there a way to create an interface that caters to both spirited drivers as well as technophiles? Let me know what you think! 

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A few thoughts on “Using the Difficulty”​ in User Experience Design

Introduction

While looking through articles and examples of UI Dark Patterns, I stumbled across a paper titled “Use the Difficulty through Schwierigkeit”: Antiusability as Value-driven Design”. I was intrigued by the title of the paper, and the essay style used by the author.

On an initial read through, the paper felt like a meandering essay, which touched upon various aspects of the “Anti-usability/Schwierigkeit ” school of thought. A couple more read-throughs later, I was able to understand the various nuances within the points presented by the author.

The author really exemplifies the point he’s trying to make with the words used in the first couple of sentences. I mean, wording such as  “This aphorism also encapsulates the raison d’etre…” has to have been a deliberate choice.

Definition and Origins of “Using the Difficulty”

Antiusability is defined as

“…a novel way of design that centers on the finely tuned integration of graduated difficulty into user interfaces to systems in a variety of contexts.”

It’s important to note that Antiusability is not the opposite of usability, it is in fact part of usability and user experience design. Lenarcic makes note of this by suggesting the use of the term “Schwierigkeit” (which means “difficult” in German) as an alternative.

Lenarcic cites the example of Michael Caine, who asked the director of a play he was in, about how to deal with a chair that was on stage. The director told him to make use of the chair in a way that helped him express the nature of the scene (smashing the chair of it was a dramatic scene, or tripping over it if it was comedic). In this way the chair went from being an obstacle to an object that could be used in a productive manner.

Key Points

Here are the key  points that Lenarcic went over in his paper:

  • The usability of a device can modify a user’s behavior.
  • Difficulties can be used in such a way as to have a net positive effect.
  • Choreographing obstacles in a way that allows the users to regain the feeling of being in charge of the interaction process rather than being “madly addicted” to it.
  • “Calibrated difficulty in practical design to accentuate the greater good in system use”
  • How easy should things be? How difficult should things be to enable an end user to feel they have performed a useful task?
  • Regaining control over our lives- “slow” movement and moving away from hyper-efficiency as an end goal for all interactions
  • Exploring “viscosity” in user environments, affordances that allow resistance to local changes.

What follows is my attempt at summarizing and reflecting on some of the points presented in this paper. The paper was written in a meandering essay style and my thoughts tended to meander as I wrote this, though I have tried my best to create some coherent structure.

“Calibrated Difficulty”: Gamification and Homo Ludens

The author talks about “calibrated difficulty in practical design to accentuate the greater good”. My mind naturally went to levels of difficulty in video games. Games are a great example of difficulty being an important aspect of the user’s experience or indeed their enjoyment. Most games have different levels of difficulty to cater to different people’s preferences.

Today, gamification of interfaces has become a buzzword. “Gamification elements” have become synonymous with things you can tack onto an interface in order to make it more “delightful”. Things like leaderboards, scores, achievements, and badges. I feel like the benefits of adding such elements without proper thought is limited at best and questionable at worst.

I believe that this idea of using the difficulty has an application in truly gamifying a user experience. True gamification involves using aspects of the interaction itself, using the “Core Drives” of the user, as this article by Yu-kai Chou brilliantly describes. Imagine if you got a sense of accomplishment on completing a tedious task, rather than exasperation. (Something like, say, editing an image-laden document in Microsoft Word without messing up the layout.) Providing a challenge, timely positive feedback and competition can definitely act as motivational drivers as is described in this paper.

But gamification at its core still aims to improve the user experience with the goals of the user in mind. It is still about getting things done by providing a sense of accomplishment to the user for doing “grunt work”. Lenarcic’s Schwierigkeit is more in line with William Gaver’s “Designing for Homo Ludens”. As Gaver describes, his definition of “playing” is different from “gaming”

“Not only are these forms of ‘play’ fundamentally goal-oriented, but in striving for a defined outcome they impose rules about the right and wrong ways to go about things… Pursuing such an instrumental version of ‘fun’ does not help provide an alternative model for computing. On the contrary, it co-opts play into the same single minded, results-oriented, problem-fixated mindset that we have inherited from the workplace.”

Gaver goes on to provide examples of open ended forms of engagement with no fixed goals, rules or outcomes. He says that scientific approaches to design should be complemented by open ended and exploratory ones.

“It is difficult to conceive of a task analysis for goofing around, or to think of exploration as a problem to be solved, or to determine usability requirements for systems meant to spark new perceptions”

Regaining control over the experience- allowing the user to reflect on their actions

Another aspect of Lenarcic’s paper is about allowing the user to reflect and rest as they use the system, instead of having a singular goal of reducing the time on task and increasing efficiency. The more time you can save, the more work you will end up doing, as Landauer expressed in his book The Trouble with Computers.

He argues that allowing time to reflect over actions may help the user feel more in control over the system, as opposed to being “madly addicted” to the process. He argues that adopting a more mindful and “slow” approach could lead to more user satisfaction. Allowing users to reflect on their actions be used to improve learnability and understanding of the system.

A personal reflection on Usability, User Experience and “Delighting” the user

Usability discussions are often centered around ease of use, and when people talk about user experience the end goal is often times “delighting” the user. The end goal of UX design and research is always creating an ideal experience for the user based on their needs and behaviors. Words like simple, easy, desirable, and efficient are the ones that are used, while words like difficult always have a negative connotation.

This paper really got me to think- is making something easy to use, more efficient and less time consuming really the only way to improve the user experience? Can the difficulties inherent in some experiences be leveraged to a positive end?

Of course, there’s a difference between making something usable and making a delightful user experience. I feel like Lenarcic’s idea of “using the difficulty” has a place in discussions about the latter. Some may equate the ideal experience with the most efficient, but reading Lenarcic’s essay made me go back and re-read ideas like Gaver’s Designing for Homo Ludens, and made me realize that there’s a lot more to user experience or human centered design than simply designing for efficiency.

Thinking back to my days as in Grad School, I remember the discussions with professors and peers about ways to “delight” the user. It almost always ended up being about how the interface reacted to the user- beautiful transitions, animations, innovative 404 screens or other ways in which to provide information about system status, and so on.

There’s so much more to user experience and “delighting” the user than a focus on making things easier to use. Exploring, playing around with something with no end goal, some level of challenge, all of these are ways in which we may seek fulfillment. I’m glad I picked apart this paper despite my initial hesitation, because it made me go back and re-read so many things that I had forgotten about or was unable to appreciate because of the stresses of being a graduate student. This in itself is a case in point- I read all these academic papers with a goal oriented mindset, I wanted to extract their meaning, write a summary, and discuss them in class, all with the goal of passing my class, with the incentive of good grades (or the fear of bad grades). My goals were set, and I developed methods to efficiently accomplish the tasks of summarizing and discussing papers. It’s now that I have the time to reflect on these papers that I realize how important and thought provoking they are.

This paper reminded me of my initial wonderment about the human condition. I feel like I had lost sight of the complexities of the things that make us tick, and it’s refreshing to remove the blinders of efficiency and ease of use to look at things like difficulty from a new perspective.

What the Indian Spice Box can tell us about optimal menu design

In my two years of living in the US and having to make Indian food for myself, I have learned the importance of the spice box. At first, cooking Indian food seems like a very daunting and labor intensive task. The oil that is used for tempering has to be heated to the right temperature, the spices have to be added in a particular order, and in precise amounts. In this scenario, having a box that contains the right spices at one place is the ideal solution.  As this article in the Boston Globe describes it:

“Timing is key in Indian cooking. Many recipes begin by heating oil first, then adding small amounts of spices in quick succession. The oil’s temperature has to be just right so mustard seeds pop, cumin seeds sizzle, and turmeric and red chile powders lose their raw edge without burning. The spice box is the most efficient and practical way of accessing the required spices easily: Open one lid and everything you need is right there.”

The spice box is a mainstay in every kitchen in every Indian household. The design is quite simple – a steel or wooden container (generally round) with smaller containers inside it. This simple design has been in use for generations, and it’s easy to see why. In its relative simplicity the spice box shows the importance of user-centered design.

The spice box holds the optimal amount of ingredients. The square or round box contains about seven inner containers, plus or minus two. Add more containers, and each individual container becomes too small, requiring frequent refilling. Too large, and there aren’t enough spices in the box, reducing its usefulness. The box was designed keeping the user and the aforementioned cooking process in mind, and that is one of the things that makes it such a great design.

The spice box is customizable. The user can add the spices of their choosing. Although some of the spices are common, there are certain differences in regional cooking styles, and the box allows the user to add the spices that they may require based on their preferences.

The spice box is easy to maintain. Replenishing ingredients is simple, and the frequency of replenishing the ingredients is not too much so as to dissuade the user from using the box.

What I like specifically about the round variants of the spice box, is that the shape both communicates and facilitates rotation- the user can move the inner containers around, or order them in a way that makes it easier to remember the order in which the ingredients are to be added. A square or rectangular box does not communicate or facilitate that as much, although I can see how even the rows and columns can help the user remember the order in which spices are to be added.

What struck me about the timelessness of the spice box design is that in many ways it is a triumph of user-centered design. It is a helpful to the user, and makes the task at hand, in this case cooking, easier by reducing cognitive load. One does not explicitly have to remember the order of adding ingredients- a quick glance at the box and the way the ingredients are ordered acts as a memory cue. It increases the ease of cooking, and the user does not have to read a manual, or remember complex steps before having to use it.

Imagine if someone were to design the spice box in today’s age- I would imagine designers and engineers getting carried away with the prospects, and potential affordances that modern technology brings. That would lead to “features” like a freshness indicator, a rotation device to hasten access to the spice you require, voice commands, recipe suggestions, and so on. It would have IoT connectivity options, a companion app, and perhaps even a crowd finding campaign. I digress.

While designing a menu based solution to a design problem, designers tend to get carried away with the design of the menu itself. The menu is meant to be a means to find the right tool or option to complete the task. It is thus imperative to understand the user’s workflow and identify potential breakdowns before adding design elements like micro-interactions. Of course, modern interfaces tend to have a multitude of features, and it is not always possible to make menus simplistic. But that’s not the point. The spice box isn’t just ubiquitous because it’s simple – it is because it was designed with the user’s needs and wants in mind.

Usability Evaluation – Craigslist

Description

An expert usability evaluation I conducted as a part of a team project, for a class titled “Usability Evaluative Methods”. We conducted heuristic analyses and cognitive walkthroughs as a part of the formative evaluation, after which we conducted a usability test.

The test was a comparative study of Craigslist and a competing website called Oodle.com. There were 5 tasks per website. Half of the participants started with Craigslist, and the other half started with Oodle, so practice effects were taken care of. The participants were asked questions in the form of a semi-structured interview at the beginning of the test, and were asked to fill out a post-test questionnaire consisting of a modified System Usability Scale (SUS), and a unique card-sorting session which helped us glean information about the participants’ thought process.

Formative Study- Heuristic Analysis and Cognitive Walkthrough

We conducted heuristic analyses and cognitive walkthroughs individually and combined our findings. Some of them were:

Craigslist Home page

  • The lack of categories order, Boring design.
  • Difficulties in changing location.
  • The search filters are not working.

Account page

  • Difficulty in finding the “create a post” option once logged in to account.
  • Difficulty in navigating away from the accounts page.

Search Results

  • Search filters do not work.
  • Search alert function not clearly explained.

Summative Study- Usability Testing

In order to diagnose areas of improvements, we tested Craigslist.org against a similar site, Oodle.com. We compared these findings with the usability issues we identified in our expert review. Some of our expert review findings were confirmed by the user testing and new issues were revealed as well. There were two evaluators present during each user testing session. One would facilitate the test. The other would observe. A total of 8 user testing sessions were conducted.

Task Descriptions

Each session included the following tasks for Craigslist.org:

  • Logging in to User Account
  • Post a Listing
  • Add an Image to a Posting
  • Search for an Apartment to Rent
  • Save a Search

Each session included the following tasks for Oodle.com:

  • Logging in to User Account
  • Post a Listing
  • Add an Image to a Posting
  • Search for an Apartment to Rent
  • Mark a Listings as Favorite

 

Summary of Findings

Here are a few graphs showing a summary of our findings:

CraigslistSUS

CraigslistTaskRating.JPG

CraigslistTimeOnTask.JPG

General Recommendations:

Here are some recommendations that we found as a result of our card sorting exercise:

  • Adding the text box where user can “Search by Location” that is used on several other classifieds websites
  • Adding notification about waiting time for processing new listing after the users had posted their new products. Currently website doesn’t notify its users that the new postings take about 20 minutes before they can be viewed by other customers.
  • Adding product location distance that shows users how far they will have to travel in order to pick up their purchase. Few websites, together with Google maps, are already using this feature.

Other Recommendations:

  • Restrained social media integration
  • Clearly labeled icons

FULL REPORT: You can view the full report, which includes all of the detailed information here: Full Reportbox_expand-512